A Navy veteran from the Bronx who drove his Honda onto a sidewalk in Times Square and plowed through 21 pedestrians along a three-block stretch on Thursday, killing an 18-year-old woman, has been charged with second-degree murder, police said Friday.
Richard Rojas, 26, has also been charged with 20 counts of second-degree attempted murder and five counts of aggravated vehicular homicide, the NYPD said. He was expected to appear in court on Friday at an arraignment hearing.
The suspect told investigators he “wanted to kill them,” according to a police source, but a motive remains unclear.
Rojas made a U-turn and drove his red 2009 Honda Accord onto the sidewalk at 42nd Street and Seventh Avenue at 11:55 a.m., NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill said during a news conference Thursday.
Rojas barreled down the sidewalk “at a high rate of speed” along Seventh Avenue for three blocks to 45th Street, hitting pedestrians before crashing into a metal stanchion at the northwest corner.
The 18-year-old victim — identified by police as Alyssa Elsman, of Portage, Michigan — was struck between 42nd and 43rd streets and pronounced dead at the scene, O’Neill said. Her 13-year-old sister was also hit by the car, but is expected to survive, police said.
The victims were rushed to Bellevue Medical Center and St. Luke’s–Roosevelt Hospital Center for treatment. Of the 20 injured, four were listed in critical condition, said FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro.
Tyezhane, 20, of Harlem, was on her way to work when she saw the car jump the curb.
“It was still going while people were on top of the car,” said Tyezhane, who declined to give her last name.
Duane Jackson, 64, was standing at the corner of 45th Street and Seventh Avenue when Rojas’ Honda came hurtling down the street and crashed.
“I looked up and the guy jumped out of the car and started running down Broadway,” Jackson said. “He looked panicked, he just started running.”
A police source said Rojas made statements indicating that “police might shoot him,” creating suspicion among investigators that he may have been attempting suicide by cop.
Rojas was taken into custody at the Midtown South Precinct, police said.
He was transported to a facility for drugs and alcohol testing, O’Neill said. Alcohol has since been ruled out, as Rojas’ test came back negative, a police source said.
CNN reported that Rojas tested positive for PCP and told police God made him do it, citing a police source, but the NYPD could not confirm these results as of Friday morning.
“There is no indication that this was an act of terrorism,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said at the news conference. The FBI is working with the NYPD to investigate the incident.
Rojas, who served in the Navy from 2011 to 2014, has a criminal history that includes two previous DWI arrests — in one case, he was traveling 90 mph in a 50-mph zone, according to O’Neill and police sources.
He pleaded guilty to an infraction in 2015 and was ordered to complete a drunken driving program and lost his license for 90 days, according to the Associated Press.
He was arrested last week on a charge of menacing. Police said he pointed a kitchen knife at a notary, and he accused the notary of stealing his identity. The case is pending, the AP reported.
Kelly Graves, 54, who is visiting from Wisconsin, said she was in the area with her husband and heard the crash.
“We could see them all laid across the ground,” she said. “We saw flames coming off of the car. It was scary.”
The area surrounding the crash was closed off for hours due to the NYPD investigation and motorists were urged to steer clear of Times Square.
While the NYPD said Thursday’s incident appeared to be an isolated one, De Blasio said key locations in the city were being reinforced with extra police as a precaution.
“Out of an abundance of caution, major sites in the city will get additional police coverage from our anti-terror units,” he said.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer tweeted at 12:30 p.m. that President Donald Trump “has been made aware of the situation in Times Square and will continue to receive updates.”
The city urged anyone concerned about the welfare of someone who may have been in the area and hasn’t been able to contact them to call 311.
Rojas worked as an electrician’s mate fireman apprentice for the Navy, in which he served from September 2011 to May 2014. He was primarily stationed in Jacksonville, Florida, and briefly in Charleston, South Carolina, according to Marycate Walsh, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Navy. He received a National Defense Service Medal, she added.
Rojas returned from his Navy service with a drinking problem and had posted “crazy stuff” on social media, according to a friend, Harrison Ramos, who spoke outside the apartment building where Rojas lives in the Bronx.
“Don’t make him out to be a terrorist or something,” Ramos said. “He served his country and when he came back, nobody helped him.
“He went through a real tough time,” Ramos continued, adding that he had lost contact with Rojas. “That’s my friend. I care about him, and it hurts.”
Multiple people were involved in apprehending Rojas, including civilians, officials said.
Planet Hollywood, which has a location on Broadway, issued a statement saying one of its employees helped tackle Rojas: “We can confirm that a longtime, dedicated Planet Hollywood team member of 17 years, Ken Bradix, selflessly and heroically took action by helping to stop the fleeing suspect. We are grateful for his courageous act and his ongoing cooperation with law enforcement. We send out our deepest sympathies to all impacted by this tragic event. We are also very thankful that all of our employees are safe.”
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who was also at the scene after the crash, offered his condolences to victims and their families in a statement released Thursday afternoon.
“Today’s events at Times Square were nothing short of horrific,” he said. “I was briefed at the scene by Commissioner O’Neill and saw firsthand the professionalism and diligence of New York’s first responders. As facts continue to emerge, my heart goes out to the victims of this terrible tragedy, as well as their families.”
With Alison Fox, Nicole Brown, Ivan Pereira, Newsday and Reuters